In the first part, I talked about Sage’s go to market and highlighted some of the business factors the market will need to consider. In this part I look at what’s on offer through the lens of an interactive demonstration of a live beta. Sage is in open beta as of tomorrow morning so please bear in mind that features we see today may be altered when the final service comes to market.
Some pundits make a big noise about the need for full blown multi-tenancy. Chief among them is Salesforce.com which has used the ‘no software’ mantra as a way of differentiating itself in the market while using it as a big stick with which to beat up on premise providers. Phil Wainewright believes that a mixture of on-premise and cloud computing is a viable and, in many cases desirable model.
There are economic reasons why the choice a software developer makes are important. In Sage’s case, it is critical because if they are able to create momentum in the market then they will need to satisfy a high volume of users. That requires a significant investment in understanding software architectures of which they have no experience. The other problem is that once set in stone, software architectures are very difficult to unravel.
Sage has opted for what it calls a hybrid model where it is looking to achieve a high degree of scalability and reliability while pushing processing to where it is needed. In order to keep cost down, a fair amount of processing is done in the browser. The demo I saw was slow with what seemed significant latency. That could be because of the way the Webex link was set up with an understandable round trip delay from Newcastle over to the US and back to me in Spain. I’ll know more when I get to field test.
Right now, I am sceptical about their choice of architecture but that is not to say it is wrong. I will know more once I’ve had further discussions with the company. For now, while in beta running at modest volumes, there should be no major problems.
The company is relying on the Line 50 database for some functions, not least the ability to backup, lock and restore the database. This is important when working with accountants who use Sage’s professional products. The idea is that the professional can lock the database at a point in time and do what they need by way of corrections and then pass the revised database back to the client without it disrupting client operations. If they’ve got this right then this solves one of the major bugbears that professionals experience at period and year end when they have to schlepp disks around and manually ensure that carry forward/brought forward balances are properly aligned. It also means that for professionals that are Sage ‘shops,’ the import of SageLive data into their practice systems should be a snap.
I saw SageLive Cash, which acts as a superset to Billing. Therefore, while Billing is a distinct product today, Sage expects that people trying Sage out on the free product and then moving over to Cash will have a seamless upgrade.
Sage has taken advantage of modern technologies to make dekstop assembly as easy as possible. In many ways it looks like a portal with the inclusion of panes for RSS fed news, pop up Google documents and so on. I’m sure Ben Kepes will have something to say on the usability front but at first glance, it looks OK, but without some of the polish I’ve seen in competitive products. Remember this is a beta so in time this criticism may be seen as harsh.
Duane Jackson rendered his verdict a while back but even with that in mind, I’m not quite as critical as Duane who claimed Sage had not understood what business users need. I think Wayne misses what Sage is trying to achieve. I’d say that if new users want to try everything on offer then they will have a fairly tough learning curve. This is because Sage has attempted to bring relatively sophisticated features to the table. Some are self evident, others less so. For example, there is a direct integration between Google Calendar and the application. This means that a user can quickly visualize what’s going on in the business from amounts owed and owing to deliveries due. This is a level of sophistication that users should be able to manage.What’s more, Sage is bundling Flash demos and extensive help to assist customers in ramping up. I would like to have seen an editable wiki because then customers can write their own instructions the way they feel comfortable rather than attempting to make the best of the cookie cutter help on offer.
Integration of Google Docs and Spreadsheet might be a step too far, unless customers have experience of using all those applications. Be aware that these features are not mandatory and that end users will need to have a Google Apps subscription. I don’t know too many people who are using Google Apps in full, in anger but this might proviude the incentive to make it work for them. Google Docs for instance, as integrated, provides a rudimentary if useful document management system for notes, Ts & Cs templates and the like. Exports to spreadhseet are there as well so customers and professionals can manipulate data relatively easily in Google Spreadsheets.
There is only one invoicing template though it can be customized for logo and end notes. I think this is a big mistake. The ability to readily customize invoices is a huge selling point and one to which Sage should give attention. As an online service, invoices can be dispatched via email in PDF format or printed for snail mail.
Overall, I think Sage has done just about enough at this point to offer the service into the market. But it is unpolished and needs refinement. In some ways it reminds me of the first iteration of SAP Business ByDesign. At the time, colleagues thought it powerful but ugly. I am less worried about the look and feel of the accounting functionality because I believe that is more than compensated by other features I’ve already mentioned. However, if Sage can make the interface easier to use and more pleasant on the eye then they will have taken a signficant step forward.
However, in its current form, Cash does bring into question the ability of customers to get the best out of the product early on. Low end on-demand is different to other solutions in that you need to understand what it does with minimal training – if possible. That’s another economic factor for developers to bear in mind. The mixture Sage has chosen IS different to other offerings and may lead to some puzzlement.
Some say you can’t release a new service without a Web 2.0 feature or two. Sage’s RSS integration, plus the ability to customize inbound news sources is welcome. It’s the sort of thing that users will find useful for what they’re doing in the accounting application. However, although Sage has pre-populated the feeds, what I saw was not well filtered leading to some strange stories sitting side by side. I wish they had included some genuine community features. This product is going into the field with only Sage to support it. Getting customers on board through genuine community efforts cannot do Sage any harm and only serve to help them with feedback and feature requests.
Finally – reporting. This is weak and looks as though it’s been thrown together as an afterthought. Sage has opted for TB, P&L plus Balance Sheet. Keep them by all means for the professionals but please – rapidly develop a graphical dashboard using Google Spreadsheet to give people an instant picture of their financial condition plus a reason to engage with that integration. This is something Xero does very well.
The best for last. Sage has provided integration to the Blackberry platform. Right now, users have to pull data to the device but can do some processing from the Blackberry. For business people who are on the road, this is a tremendous productivity booster. It does open up other questions around licensing in small companies but we;ll reserve those for another day. Suffice to say, the mobile client is a paid for add-on.
Sage says that in the next iteration, they will provide a push model. That will allow users to receive automatic alerts.
I have been pretty scathing about Sage’s on-demand offerings in the past but this is better than I imagined at one level but not up to snuff at another. It is a beta and given that Sage is actively seeking feedback, it will improve.
However, important unanswered questions remain about both architecture and commercial issues. I sense Sage is making a genuine attempt to get it right. But then I said that about ByDesign and see where it is today. With that experience and the war stories of others in mind, I am cautiously optimistic. But that’s as far as I am prepared to go today.
UPDATE: Ben Kepes took a deeper dive than I and notes there is MORE collaboration than I thought. Also note the colour switch in some of the screens he saw, indicating the UI can be changed pretty quickly. And the fact that some KPI style information is presented graphically on the front end. Those are all good things. Otherwise we seem to be in broad agreement.